Friday, January 30, 2009


Three people in as many weeks have professed astonishment (astonishment!) when they found out I am x age. Each time, it was a different situation, but in each I was doing something professional. I told one person, “but I have crow’s feet and gray hair!” (ok, not much...but it seems pretty visible to me!) and she shrugged me off by saying her mother had gray hair in high school.

I’m not exactly sure why I look so young. It’s not just my small stature – I have lots of petite friends who don’t have this problem. I don’t have a traditional “baby” face (wide-set eyes, round cheeks, full lips), so I’m not exactly sure what it is. I guess I’ll just have to wait for more gray hair to look the “appropriate” age.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

working hours

I have a limited tolerance for working long hours in the office. No matter how absorbing my work is, after about 8 hours of writing/analyzing, my brain is full. Also, the lights/computer screen tend to set off my migraines.

I can go a lot longer in the field. Most of the time I’m in the field, I have a million things to do or keep an eye on, and time passes a lot quicker, even when the environment itself isn’t terrific. Also, if I’m travelling for work, I don’t have much to look forward to back at the hotel room. So I might as well work longer hours and get paid for them.

However, there is a limit to the number of hours I like to work. After a long day, I need a long hot (if it’s cold out) or lukewarm (if it’s hot out) shower, time to eat a reasonable, non fast-food dinner, and a minimum of 8 hours to sleep. And a half hour to get dressed and eat breakfast in the morning. If fieldwork starts to eat into that time, I’m not a happy camper. Practically speaking, it means that more than 12 hours/day is pushing it. I can go up to 13, but I’ll get cranky/stressed after a week or so. So 11-12 hours/day, or somewhere around 60 hours a week, is what I shoot for (assuming a minimal commute to the field site).

The maximum number of hours/day I’ve worked is 15.5. In that case, the day went something like this:

7am: Start work.
1pm: Someone does a lunch run to the nearest sub shop. Eat when you can.
8 pm: Everyone is ravenous and threatening mutiny. Order pizza.
9 pm: Scarf down pizza, go back to whatever you were working on.
11 pm: Fall into bed.

If I am in charge of a (non emergency response) field project, there is no way I will let things get so bad that the field folks would have to work more than 14 hours a day for two or more days in a row. I would pull more bodies into the field (you can always scrounge up managers, newbies, or beg people from other projects), I would get an extension from the client, I would PLAN THE WORK BETTER at the outset. If you have people working in the dark, outside, around heavy equipment, and with no chance to eat properly or sleep, you have created an unacceptably hazardous working environment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Remember when I said that I could eat everything in sight and never gain weight, blah, blah, blah?

Well, I mentioned a while back that I’d bought a suit, but with the potential of going out and wearing office attire on a regular basis, I decided to haul out my old work pants, which I had dutifully carted around but hadn’t worn since before I left for grad school.

Ugh. Turns out that not doing fieldwork and sitting on my ass for several months while writing my thesis has indeed had an impact. None of my office pants fit. I found a reliable scale and guess what: I’m at my top weight ever. Also, I had a significant uphill walk to grad school every day, and I think my thighs have increased and my arms/shoulders have atrophied, because all my old shirts fit fine. But those pants are now like sausage casings.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

after the big paper

So everyone should wish EcoGeoFemme a happy manuscript-finishing. I’ve mentioned before that I had to finish my thesis way before I was ready, and as a result I was frantically analyzing and calculating right up to the bitter end. I also had presentation/publication deadlines within a similar time frame, so I spent essentially a month doing nothing but write. So what happened afterward?

I became a huge couch potato. Any intellectual exercise was utterly beyond me. Oh sure, I had still had some personal, professional, and grad school responsibilities, but I gave them the bare minimum of attention. After several months of working all out and never having a break of more than a day or so, I was burnt out.

I think that post-thesis period was the longest “down” time I’ve ever had. I guess you could call it post-partum depression, using EcoGeoFemme’s baby metaphor. I’m not sure how long post-thesis/defense burnout usually lasts, but for me, it was about a month before I wanted to hear “thesis” or “edit” or anything related to my topic.

Hopefully EcoGeoFemme will be able to relax a little and enjoy her post-manuscript time.

Friday, January 23, 2009


At a recent environmental conference, I met up with several graduate students from all over the country: east coast, southwest, northwest, and midwest. Everybody had some experience with environmental consulting. And everybody whose car was less than 5 years old had a hatchback or small wagon. I believe the lineup went something like focus, yaris, matrix, 3 (mazda), golf, focus.

It’s not surprising – hatchbacks are relatively cheap, can park anywhere (and a small turning radius is a huge help when you keep missing turns on your way to a new field site), don’t use much gas, hold a lot of field gear (although my particular storage criterion was a standard Christmas tree), and for people of a certain age, they don’t carry any particular stigma. You can get one with all-wheel drive, too. If you’re a more, ah, engaged driver, you can compromise on the mileage and the cost and get more of a pocket rocket. My car was the latter. I had a great deal of fun when I first bought my car and nobody knew what it was. It’s always amusing to surprise teenagers who seem to think that stickers and a spoiler make a car go faster.

Hatchbacks make sense for field folks. If you’re in a field that involves working outside for relatively low pay, you’re more likely to pick practicality over luxury when you’re car shopping. And as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t consider SUVs to be necessarily practical. With that being said, if my car dies tomorrow and I win the lottery, I would get something like this:

(Mercedes B200 sports turbo)

Oh yeah. You can’t get it in the US. Ok, so if I won the lottery, I’d keep my car and get a non-field car.

(audi R8)

Mm…head-turning, mid-car engine, all-wheel drive, and at just breaking 6 figures, semi-affordable compared to some other exotics.

Of course, I’d need a house with a garage for it. So I’d need to win a really big lottery.

Note: I have a long weekend of travelling, so I won't have a new post on Monday. Also, I added a "driving" tag, since I seem to discuss it a lot.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

the things I carried

FSP posted about her multiplying laptop cords last week. I feel her pain. The problem with my work as an environmental consultant is that I need to be totally stocked up for a number of different situations, each of which requires similar equipment: feminine products, hair holders of some sort, contact lens case and solution, water, sunscreen, snacks, pens and something to write on, pain meds to head off migraines, and various chargers. My different “environments” and the bags I use are:

1. home

2. office/desk

3. conference/other travel (laptop bag)

4. general about town (purse)

5. fieldwork (backpack)

It sounds excessive, but I’m a wee bit scatterbrained. I’ll never remember the million things I need on a regular basis and consulting tends to be a last-minute thing (ok, so tomorrow you’re going to this site four hours away…) so I just have dedicated bags for everything. That way I can worry about more, ah, technical stuff instead.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

credit for what?

My advisor runs a decent-sized research program. He seems to know practically everybody, since he’s been in the field forever and he’s a champion networker. He takes every advantage to talk up what he’s (we’re) doing. If it involves exotic/warm locales, so much the better.

Several years ago, he was discussing his research with some other academics, one of whom was an expert in a particular method. We’ll call her Professor X. This method is pretty standard and is one of several that could be used in (what turned out to be) my research topic.

Fast-forward to a couple years ago, when I was starting to develop my thesis. My advisor and I batted around ideas for what my work would involve, and I did an extensive literature search. Based on the literature and discussions with the folks funding the research, I decided to use the common method that Professor X had happened to discuss with my advisor ages ago. You can probably guess where this is going.

Some of my work was presented/published, and Professor X found out. She demanded to be given some sort of credit for the work, since she’d had a discussion with my professor about using this method on one of his research interests. Did she think up the method? No, although her group would be on my list of the top research teams that used it.

My advisor had talked to all sorts of people over the past decade about his research, and I’m quite sure any number of those people had discussed using the same method. Did this random conversation between my advisor and Professor X lead to my work? Who knows – my advisor certainly didn’t remember the specifics of the conversation.

But hey, if she wants to be acknowledged for talking to my advisor at some point in the past decade about something that was used in my project, that’s fine by me. It would have been silly to try and quantify, so Professor X got added to the list of random “additional acknowledgements”.

Is this common? Does having your name in some sort of acknowledgement section have any career or other benefit if you’re an academic? It’s not like she’s listed as an author or that she’d get any sort of royalties. I’m chalking this up to a certain academic vanity, but maybe I’m missing something.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

States I've been to

This has been going around the geoblogosphere, so I thought I’d put in the states I’ve been to. I’m counting states I’ve driven through but not states that I’ve merely had a stopover in (although I don’t think that would increase the number significantly).

visited 36 states (72%)
Create your own visited map of The United States or try another Douwe Osinga project

You can see that I am indeed an east coast kind of gal. And if the southern "line" going across the country appears to be the result of a road trip, well, they are. I guess I need to spend some time in the northern and southern portions of the country. I won’t list the countries I’ve been to because it’s sort of an unimpressive list.

Monday, January 19, 2009

more winter problems

You know what sucks? Trying to pee outside in the winter.

It’s a lot more complicated for the ladies. It’s really hard to find a private place to take a leak when all the trees are barren. If it’s frigid out, like it was last week, then you have a bunch of layers to unwrap and re-wrap, and your tookus freezes while you try to aim away from the three layers of long underwear/pants. And I won't even get into when you have your period...

I often find neat little urine holes in the snow where the guys have just taken a leak right next to where they were sampling. Must be nice!

Friday, January 16, 2009

writing criticism

EcoGeoFemme recently mentioned constructive criticism in writing and how she's relatively thick-skinned. I must have skin like a rhinosaurus in this way, because I've been taught from the very beginning that you should always have someone else look over your work. Likewise, it'll make things infinitely better if you step away from what you're writing, wait a couple days, and re-read it (something I wasn't able to do for my thesis, which was the worse for it...I'll have to discuss that later). So I've always had someone pick apart my writing.

It's a lot easier to critique someone's writing than do some other form of constructive criticism. First, it's written. Instead of saying "maybe you should do it this way," you can let your red pen do the work in a relatively non-judgemental way (as long as you go easy on the angry underlines and exclamation points, which can be tempting).

Like EcoGeoFemme, I am familiar with workshopping, in which your peers go through and comment on not just the form (relatively easy), but also the content of something that's intensely personal. And I found myself frustrated by people who would write some sort of vague "looks good!". Not helpful, people! My writing was helped immensely by a very picky science professor who covered my papers in red ink, and I return the favor for my friends' papers and that of the students I've TA'd. Heck, I fix spelling/grammar mistakes on labs.

I don't always agree with the people who edit my stuff. I have long, drawn out arguments with my SO, who has a different writing style. I have the option of ignoring suggestions. But if I don't have the suggestion, I may miss something I hadn't noticed. Like, oh, writing "pubic" instead of "public" on a notice that's getting sent to a community that may not particularly appreciate what my company is doing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

winter driving

The lovely local conditions in my area this past week reminded me of this. When you’re working in the field, chances are you’re going to get caught in a snowstorm at some point, or you’re going to be doing some level of off-roading in poor conditions to get to a site. So here’s the short geologist’s guide to driving on slippery roads (or non-roads).

1. Attempt to get a car that drives well in bad conditions. This may be impossible. The rental company may be all out of vehicles that are good in the snow, or you may be forced to drive cargo vans or pickup trucks (or horrors, box trucks) because of your equipment. Or you may have terrible company vehicles.

2. Practice. If a vehicle is new to you, take it out to a bare stretch of parking lot before loading it up with stuff, if possible, and just do a couple stops and turns. Does it slide easily? If so, how does it feel before it breaks traction? How long does it take to come to a stop at a reasonable speed?

3. No sudden starts or stops. If you start to slide/can’t start, ease up on whatever pedal you’re pressing. This means you have to pay attention to what you’re doing so you have plenty of time to react. You’re going to need it.

4. Acceleration = velocity and turning (sorry, I’m not a physicist, but you know what I mean). Try to avoid changing your speed and direction at the same time. If you see a curve ahead, slow down before you get to it.

5. Extension of # 3: don’t stop if you can help it. You stop, you lose momentum. Much better to cruise along slowly. I’ve parked in many a spot where I’ve had to then shovel/push myself out when I’ve tried to leave. Also, there is such a thing as going too slow, especially uphill. If you’re doing under 10 mph, you’re more liable to grind to a halt, get stuck, and become a roadblock. This leads to…

6. Never stop on an uphill grade. Really. If you’re coming up to a hill, it’s better to wait at the bottom of the hill for everyone ahead of you to clear it (keep an eye to who’s struggling where). If someone ahead of you gets stuck, they become a roadblock and then it’s a big mess because you’ll have to leave the tire marks (relatively clear) and try and maneuver around them. I’ve seen plenty of stoplights perched right at the top of steep grades because of bridges. If this is the case, wait at the bottom of the hill, get some momentum, and then go.

7. Patience! We all have our own comfort zones. Cars have varying degrees of drivability in bad conditions. If you accept that other drivers may not be doing what you’d like them to do, and compensate, you’re less likely to lose control yourself.

8. Don’t let the gas gauge get too low. Especially on a highway. If conditions become impassable, put the car as far off the road as you can (I’d put her sideways into a snowbank so she’s as far off the road as possible and her ass isn’t sticking out, but that’s just me), put on the hazards, and go into winter survival mode. Make sure the tailpipe’s uncovered, crack a window, run the engine every 15 minutes so it’s not frigid, hop out to clear it off so that you can be seen, and hang on. With a decent tank of gas, you can go on safely like this for hours.

Happy driving!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sour Grapes

I mentioned a while ago that I didn’t have the best time as an undergrad. I was pretty lonely, and while I wasn’t bullied, I was excluded from a lot of stuff.

I got my alumni magazine the other day, and I immediately flipped to the “class round up” at the back. I found that several people who’d made my life unpleasant at college had gotten all sorts of advanced degrees and were advancing to positions of importance. They were also having all sorts of reunions with all their other best friends from school.

I’m happy where I am in life. I’m here because of a series of personal and professional decisions that were right for me, and I do not regret them. I like what I’m doing, and I have accepted the (relatively low) payscale of a scientist.

The alumni review magazine is bugging me more than I’d like to admit. There is a part of me that thinks, “but they were stupid and mean, so they shouldn’t be winning!” although I’m not competing with them in any rational sense. And why do I care so much about folks I haven’t interacted with in years?

This is taking up way more emotional space in my head than it deserves, I know. But it still bugs me a little.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

field creep

This post at Jezebel stirred up quite a reaction.

I have to admit that I generally don’t get bugged by overly friendly/personal space-enroaching/borderline stalkerish men, for two reasons. First, I’ve been told a million times that I look like a teenager, and roughly 90% of men are going to avoid hitting on an underage girl. Second, my stride. You see, my father’s tall and lanky, and he has a really long stride. To this day, if we’re walking somewhere and I don’t want to break into a trot, I need to match it. And that long stride became the way I walk, well, all the time. Combine my long stride with my east coast big city avoidance of eye contact, and I don’t give “friendly” strangers much of a chance to hit on me.

That doesn’t mean I entirely avoid creepy men when I'm working, though. A couple times, I’ve emerged from a swamp in my waders, ass-deep in mud, only to have some mouth-breather cackle “don’t you look sexy with your thigh-high boots!” (accompanied by a leer). This has only happened when I’m alone, so it’s actually pretty unnerving.

It’s pretty simple. I'm fine with being approached. But you need to give me some personal space. And try to pay attention to what I’m saying, and not other, ah, assets. And oh yeah. Don’t be an asshole.

Monday, January 12, 2009

100 posts!

Looky here, 100 posts! Time for a new word cloud.

I don't have my posts saved in any single file, so when I compiled them, I was surprised to find that it ran to 67 pages.

Unfortunately, as before, I have a lot of "linking" words and not so many "action" words. Yeah, I could go through and delete all words like "like", "get", "really", etc, but this is more accurate of how I actually write, for better or worse. Rest assured, I do refrain from all the parentheticals in my technical writing.

Friday, January 9, 2009

drilling methods and utilities

We have a whole bunch of ways to put holes in the ground, using anything from DPT rigs you can mount to a golf cart to air-rotary rigs that are a block long. But when you’re installing standard monitoring wells above bedrock, you tend to use either augers (claws that spin down) or casing (pipes you hammer down). Augers are faster, casing minimizes dragging contaminants to clean layers below; but what do you prefer (everything else being equal) if you’re afraid of hitting utilities?

Each has its own problem. When you punch through something with casing, you wish that you’d had the augers because the scratching of the claws might have alerted you to a problem. But there’s nothing quite like when the auger gets stuck, and you yank it up (if you can) to find a massive ball of wires wrapped around it. Then you get to play the “um, do you have power?” game with all the neighbors.

You may think, “why don’t you just go more carefully?” For the first couple feet, we do. But we may have all sorts of perfectly innocent boulders and other natural barriers that we need to power through, and determining which is natural and which is not can sometimes be difficult. Hence my extreme dislike of the first five feet.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

MS? PhD?

Sciencewomen is looking for help for an environmental science person who’s trying to decide between a PhD and a MS. So here’s my 2 cents:

First of all, environmental science is a really big field. In my experience, departments titled “environmental studies” or “environmental science” tend to be social science departments. So they tend to do things like environmental planning, management, and policy. Environmental physical science includes topics as disparate as industrial hygiene, forestry, toxicology, treatment system design, and analytical chemistry.

So you have to remember that I deal in dirt and contamination. I have a totally different educational experience from all the disciplines I mentioned above. So should a dirt/contamination person go right to a PhD, or should they get a MS first?

Field projects can take a lot of time, a couple of field seasons. So if you know that you want to go into research or academia, I’d suggest going straight to the PhD. It’ll give you more flexibility with your research. However, most environmental companies will see someone who went straight to a PhD as a liability – someone who will be expensive, but who doesn’t have enough practical experience to be trusted with a project. Most of the folks I know who have PhDs in industry end up being the local expert in their one small area of expertise and get pigeonholed there. That’s fine if you just want to do just groundwater modeling or whatever, but I like to be able to work on lots of different things. So I’d recommend starting with an MS and at least some degree of environmental experience to get some sense of real-world conditions.

Most of the experts in this field who aren’t engaged in pure research (i.e. academics) have a combination of a graduate degree and a significant amount of experience (over 10 years). There aren’t any shortcuts. Why? Well, I deal in what’s actually out in the world. And what’s out in the world doesn’t necessarily conform too well with what it’s supposed to. You end up with a lot of judgment calls, and you have to know how to get good data in adverse conditions, including all the crap I’ve dealt with and mentioned in this blog.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

field appetite

I have a fast metabolism. If there’s a famine, I’ll be the first one to go. When I’m in the field, running around for 11 hours a day, my metabolism rate goes into the stratosphere. This is a bonus in modern US society because I can eat pretty much whatever I want and not gain weight. I stress US society because one of my roommates was from a culture that valued heavier women, and she was constantly trying to gain weight.

Some folks with a fast metabolism, like my roommate, are “grazers” and need to eat every couple of hours. I do not. What this means is that after a long day in the field, when I’ve had a minimal breakfast and eat lunch on the run, I arrive at dinner ready to eat just about everything in sight.

Lots of guys are conditioned to think of all women as dieters and/or picky eaters. This has lead to some awkward situations. For example, I went out to dinner at a fantastic BBQ joint with a couple of guys after a hard day of fieldwork. I got a big heap of meat (brisket or pulled pork). It was the best BBQ I’d ever eaten, so I dug in. After a while, I came up for air (I tend to be, um, serious about eating) and realized that the guys were staring at me, and apparently had been for a while. This gave me a certain reputation.

The problem with my “massive appetite” reputation was that certain men were a little too interested in how much I ate. If I’d had a big dinner the night before or I wasn’t feeling terrific or if it was hot out, my more “normal” appetite was a topic for discussion. Back off, dude! I’m not commenting on the fact that you’ve got two spare tires and you’ve had three beers so far with dinner.

I’m ok with one sarcastic comment on my appetite. But it needs to stop there. My physical quirks (or anybody else’s) are not appropriate dinner conversation.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

winter optimism

I’m not going to lie. Working in the winter sucks. You can get trapped in snowstorms, it’s cold, and it’s dark. I do have an advantage over office staff because I’m outside for the minimal time that it is light, so I’m somewhat less likely to have an acute case of SAD, but I often find myself finishing sampling/drilling using headlights and a flashlight so that I can write stuff. Once the sun goes down, 5 or 6 pm feels like 10 or 11 pm.

January is the worst because that’s when it’s usually coldest and you’ve just passed the holiday season. What gets me through is that every day, there’s a little more light. By late February, when everyone is heartily sick of winter, sunset is significantly later and you can look forward to having spring eventually.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy New Year!

‘Tis the season for resolutions. Mine aren’t terribly earth-shattering.

1. Go back to working out 2x/week. No, really. I have a workout partner, and I’m going to try to make it into more of a mutual commitment rather than a mutual “do you feel like working out? Nah…let’s work out tomorrow night.”

2. Keep up with this blog. I’m anticipating a lot more fieldwork in upcoming months, so my output may shrink. We’ll see.

3. Plan and actually carry out a trip to somewhere exotic. Preferably somewhere I can cross off at least 1 geology thing I should see.

4. Keep up my correspondence with long-suffering friends. I like having friends all over the place, but it does mean I have to work at keeping up friendships that are important to me.

5. Trim some of my online preoccupations (I’m looking at you, lolcats and the AV club!) so that I can spend time on more interesting and meaningful stuff.

Happy new year, everyone!